Nottingham RUFC [illustration: Adam Poole]
March has seen the Green and Whites continue to chip away in their battle to break into the Premiership and despite the tough task they have faced in the month’s four fearsome matches they have shown what amazing progress has been made over the past twelve months. Having finished a creditable fifth in the league, passage to the Promised Land of the Aviva Premiership was always going to be an uphill task after being grouped with promotion favourites and table-topping Bristol (note, winning the league wasn’t good enough to secure automatic promotion: the top eight go into two pools of four, before semi-finals and a final determine which team go up), but two games against the West Country side have shown that there will be plenty more good times at Meadow Lane, whichever division the club find themselves in come the autumn.
"Consonant, please": Ayoola Erinlie
With so much going off on the pitch the team could have been forgiven for locking themselves away in training, but their commitment continues to stretch out across the city, with players and Archie the mascot getting out and about, and popping up to meet their supporters. Countdown King Ayoola Erinle has been showing off his brainpower by taking on pupils of Becket School at the popular Channel 4 quiz. The centre, known for his love of word and number puzzles, said “I believe very strongly that training your brain is just as important as training your body. If my mind is as sharp as it can be then it can only have a positive effect on the rest of me, which will hopefully mean I am able to deliver to my optimum potential. I've always enjoyed mental challenges, ever since I was young, and I find it both stimulating and relaxing to complete mental puzzles.”
The former England international appeared on the TV show in 2005, so was well prepared for the challenge on taking on five students in the lunchtime lesson, but it took until the final round for him to overcome the youngsters, something that he was very relieved to do: “The lads would have given me some stick if I’d lost, but it’s part of my psyche to rise to challenges put in my way. The kids put up a really good showing and I was very impressed with their ability, particularly on the maths puzzles. Only the final round secured my win, so they deserve a lot of credit.”
Sione Kalamafoni, Brent Wilson and hometown boy Phil Eggleshaw have also been busy, joining Archie in meeting the next star generation at the Stepping Stones Day Nursery in the Arboretum for a rugby-themed fun day. The youngsters put on a great show for the guests of honour, showing off their skills and even painting eggs to look like rugby balls, which got back rower Eggleshaw reminiscing about his childhood and being a young fan of the Green and White’s. He said: “Watching these guys run around and trying to tackle certainly makes me feel old. It’s great for Stepping Stones to put on a rugby day in our honour. If all these knee-high fans can make such a big effort for us, then we can do the same on the field.”
Elsewhere, academy star Morgan Robinson-Eames has been selected for the England under-18 Clubs and Schools team to take on Ireland on April 14, while it has been announced that Sione Kalamafoni will be leaving Meadow Lane at the end of the season to join Premiership side Gloucester. Since joining the Green and Whites in 2010 his career has rocketed, the flanker making his name as one of the Championship’s most fearsome runners and being named man of the match in his country’s shock 19-14 win over France at the World Cup. And while the 6’5” hard-hitter is excited about taking his domestic career to the next level he wants to show his gratitude to the club that helped him showcase his immense talent. The 23-year-old Tongan said: “I want to show the club that I appreciate everything that has been done for me, and that means bringing my A-game every time I play for Nottingham. It was hard and very easy at the same time. I’m sad to leave the first professional club that I joined, and Nottingham has been very good helping me on and off the pitch, and then it is very easy wanting to go to a Premiership club like Gloucester.”
Sione Kalamafoni: farewell to the Tongan
On the pitch, the team have had mixed success during the first four games of the play-offs, with one win, two defeats and a pulsating draw to leave them looking unlikely to make the semi-finals.
The Green and Whites kicked off the campaign with a trip to Old Deer Park to face London Welsh and, having been in a winning position midway through the second half, they will feel they should have taken more from it. The opening stages were topsy-turvy with Welsh taking the lead before Kalamafoni crossed to bag the first try of the day, and when Arlidge scored a penalty they looked set for a majestic away performance. But a revival from the home side saw them retake the lead before the break.
In the second half Nottingham were gifted their opportunity to take the game by the scruff of the neck when Exiles had Gordon Ross sin-binned and were then forced to battle with just 13 men for a few minutes after dangerman Alex Davies joined his team mate. However, the Green and Whites fail to take their chance, scoring only three points to be just one ahead when the playing numbers levelled up, and were made to pay as they conceded two tries that took the game from their grasp. They did round off the scoring with a Ben Prescott try but the damage was done. No bonus point was forthcoming and a 32-21 defeat set the push for promotion off badly.
The first home game saw them face local rivals Doncaster Knights and the Green and Whites didn’t disappoint their fans this time round with a one-sided 30-3 victory in what was a niggly affair. It was a case of camping in the Knights’ territory for almost the whole first half, but a dour, farcical spectacle of scrums and reset scrums ensued, and when penalties were awarded Nottingham continued to go for scrums rather than points, causing frustration among the deplorably small crowd, and only creating a 9-0 lead to show for their unimpressive dominance.
Delaney: hairdryer treatment...?
However, it seemed that Glenn Delaney had dished out some ‘hairdryer treatment’ to the team at half-time, as a ruthless second-half showing followed, one that began almost straight away when the ball was hacked forward for Tim Streather to ground for the opening try, duly converted by James Arlidge. David Jackson and Juan Socino then combined well only to be brought back for crossing [a penalty offence for illegal running lines that obstruct the tackler, non-rugbyistas] before Doncaster got on the board with a penalty that came about after a surprise breakaway that saw home skipper Craig Hammond sin-binned. Once back to full strength the dominance was restored, Michael Holford and Erinle going over to bring about an emphatic scoreline but all their pressing could not reap the four-try bonus point that can be vital in playoff round-robin situations.
With the competition in full-swing the Green and Whites then faced a daunting double-header against favourites Bristol knowing that the results would make or break their chances of top-flight rugby. First up was a game in front of a passionate home crowd, but it wasn’t enough to stop them falling to a 24-18 defeat, largely as a result of early mistakes that gifted their opponents an 18-point lead at one stage. The writing was on the wall early on, with Nottingham in a strong field position looking to open the scoring only to lose possession and allow Bristol to show the Green and Whites how to take advantage of point-scoring positions. Almost immediately, another mix-up in possession saw them concede a second try, with penalties either side bringing about a fatal 18-0 deficit.
With the game seemingly out of sight the home side got into gear with Streather getting the elusive try that they had threatened but failed to find, one before and one after the break, the latter having intercepted on halfway to bring the score to 18-12. But once again seeing their opponents reduced to 14-men cost Nottingham dear as Bristol scored two penalties to nullify the impact of Matt Parr’s late try, and despite some forceful late work they couldn’t notch any more points, leaving them to rue the horror start they made.
Japan's James Arlidge: the trustiest boot in town
Five days later and a trip to the Memorial Stadium in Bristol brought about an incredible performance from the Green and Whites, who deservedly earned themselves a 19-19 draw and were unlucky not to take all the points. With Nottingham no longer as error prone as in the previous game, the teams were able to cancel each other out all game, with the boot of Bristol’s Matthew Jones the only means to trouble the scorekeeper for the home side until Will Helu broke the visitors’ resolve and crossed for the first try. Yet once again the restart brought a better Nottingham performance, with Kalamafoni showing everyone why he will be a Gloucester player next season by getting that all-important touchdown and leaving it to the feet of Jones and Arlidge to battle to a hard-fought draw. Mind you, the Japan international will rue two missed drop-goals that could have created a memorable win.
The mixed results leave Nottingham third in Pool A on eight points, eight behind Bristol in second and needing to win both of their remaining games to stand any chance of reaching the semi-finals. The team need as much support as possible over the coming weeks if they are to keep alive the promotion dream so get down to Meadow Lane and help show them they have the backing of the city.
Photos by Alison Bowden, c/o Nottingham Rugby